Tony writes: Since Christmas morning when I unexpectedly assigned them annual-holiday-tradition status (it was snowing lightly; I got swept up in the moment), I’ve become obsessed with pancakes. Really good ones, of course, with crispy edges and a super-light texture and interesting (but not obnoxiously so) flavor pairings. I’ve whisked up many batches since to better understand pancakes, testing them in my griddle-less kitchen, armed with my less-than-stellar baking abilities. I’ve discovered 3 basic tricks (in addition to the familiar “don’t overwhisk/leave the lumps” refrain) which I list in order of importance as well as a basic recipe for my newest favorite iteration. Give them a go this Sunday:
1. Heat control and a really heavy pan: I won’t lie: I’ve burned plenty of pancakes, so I’ve learned there is a little nuance here. You want the pan to be hot enough to crisp up the pancakes, but not so hot that that first side burns. The trick is two-fold: you need to pre-heat a really heavy pan or griddle at moderate heat (I used medium low) for a good long while (around 3 minutes). Both elements are equally important. The pan has to be heavy enough to properly retain and transfer the heat. I favor my cast-iron skillet, which gives the pancakes a nice crust and some lift to their texture. Non-stick pans are fine – the pancakes won’t stick, of course, but they won’t get the same crust or lift either. And because it’s dangerous to pre-heat non-stick pans (teflon fumes), you’ll have to alter the cooking method; don’t pre-heat with the oil for more than 30 seconds.
2.Filling and texture on the back side: As with most all things that get seared on the stovetop, the first side to be cooked is the beauty side, the opportunity for perfect browning. The second side (the flipped side) is hard to make pretty, no matter how carefully you cook it. Couple that with the fact that the second side gets sprinkled with the pancakes’ fillings (below, slices of banana and chocolate chunks) and they’re doubly ugly. All of which got me to thinking: if it doesn’t matter how they’re going to look, why not give the underside of the pancakes some texture. A sprinkling of kosher salt and coarse brown sugar (or turbinado) might not result in full-blown crunch, but it does offer little pops of flavor. And here, in this recipe, the sugar caramelizes on the surface of the bananas. Along with the salt, that adds another layer of complexity (think salted caramel).
3. Fruit (or something else good): Pancakes are basically muffins cooked flat. Both are classified as quick breads, relying on leavening agents like baking powder and baking soda (not yeast) to give them lift. As with muffins, fruit is a good fit for the filling. In the summer months, I’m a blueberry-cornmeal pancake fan, but blueberry season is short. The rest of the year I tend to turn to bananas. They’re always around and, when ripe, melt into the batter. Add to that, a surface crunch of salt and sugar (see above) and some chopped dark chocolate and you get a really interesting brunch centerpiece.
4. Whisk lightly (ie: leave the lumps): The basic pancake method is to mix 1 part dry ingredients (flour, leavening, etc…) with 1 part liquid (milk or buttermilk, eggs, etc…). As you mix the two, lumps will form in the batter: leave them be! Mixing the batter overzealously (ie: trying to beat it until completely smooth and uniform) keeps these agents from doing their lifting thing. This causes the pancakes’ crumb to be dense and their texture to be tough. Use a spatula (not a whisk) and a gentle folding motion (around the sides of the work bowl) to mix the batter.
The recipe Make the batter (mix dry ingredients, then gently fold in the wet): Mix all the dry ingredients in a large bowl: 2 cups all-purpose flour (weigh it out – 9 0z. – if you’re the baking type), 2 tsp. baking powder, ½ tsp. baking soda, 1/4 tsp. salt. In another medium bowl, whisk together 2 cups 2%milk, 2 eggs (beaten), 1/4 cup light brown sugar, and 1 tsp. vanilla extract. Whisk well, then slowly pour into the center of the flour mixture, gently mixing with a spoon or spatula, until the mixture becomes mostly uniform with the exception of a couple of lumps. Cook the pancakes: Use a heavy pan and get it good and hot. To do this: heat a heavy-based pan or griddle over medium-low heat for 2 to 3 minutes, or until a droplet of water instantly evaporates when it touches the pans surface. Add a light coating of canola oil or vegetable oil (1 to 2 Tbs.) and then add the batter evenly spaced in 1/4 cup amounts (I can fit 3 pancakes in my 12-inch cast-iron skillet). Top with 1/2-inch slices of ripe banana, coarsely chopped dark chocolate (about 6 oz.), a light sprinkling of Turbinado sugar (or brown sugar) and some sea or kosher salt. Cook the pancakes without touching until they start to brown lightly around the edges (and the raw batter starts to set around the sides), 2 to 3 minutes. Flip (this shouldn’t be too hard as they’re only 6-inch rounds) and cook the other side until it browns lightly and the pancakes cook through (cut into a thicker piece), 2 more minutes. Top with a couple pats of butter, some powdered sugar, syrup, or honey, and serve.